A new PSP genetic risk factor screener

Genetic screening is emerging as a routine and necessary step in clinical research in the neurodegenerative diseases. If you’re looking for the cause of a family cluster, for example, you have to rule out the genetic variants already known to be associated with that disease. If you’re working up a geographical cluster of PSP, as my colleagues in France and I are, you have to look for a genetic founder effect before embarking on a difficult search for environmental causes, and the place to start is with gene variants already known to increase disease risk.
Pathological overlap among the various neurodegenerative diseases is another major current theme. For example, LRRK2 mutations can cause any of a number of pathologies, including PSP, and the tau H1 haplotype is associated with PSP, CBD and PD. It would therefore be convenient to have a single genetic screening device would allow different labs studying different diseases to compare or merge results.
Such a gizmo is now here. It’s a superset of Illumina’s Infinium HumanExome BeadChip called NeuroX. It tests for not only the standard 242,901 gene variants usable in studying any condition but also an additional 24,706 variants focusing on Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MSA, ALS, FTD, multiple sclerosis, Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, myasthenia gravis — and PSP. The chip is designed to allow easy substitution of subsequent versions of both the basic Illumina chip and easy addition of new neurological variants.
The first author of the report in Neurobiology of Aging is Mike Nalls and the senior author is Andrew Singleton, both of the NIH. The genetic variants included in the chip were derived from multiple genome-wide analyses over the past 20 years. Disclosure: I’m listed way down on the list of “authors” because I was a leader of “GenePD,” one of the consortia whose findings were used in constructing the new chip.  But I have no financial interest in the invention.
At a cost of $57 per sample plus the cost of the basic machine and technician time, you won’t have to be a drug company or the NIH to afford a statistically meaningful series; genetics core labs will be able to offer this as a routine procedure.


PSP markers in CSF? Not yet

As a PSP-ologist, it takes a lot to discourage me, but the excellent review of CSF markers in the diagnosis of PSP did it. Nadia Magdalinou, Andrew Lees and Henrik Zetterberg of University College London, writing in the JNNP, point out that no CSF measure has been consistently or reproducibly found to differentiate PSP from all of the relevant competing diagnostic considerations.
An excellent study cited in the review found low levels of CSF α-synuclein in Parkinson’s, DLB and MSA relative to PSP and other brain disorders. A value less than 1.6 pg/μl had good (91%) positive predictive value for any synucleinopathy but higher concentrations had poor (20%) negative predictive value.  So that measure is of some small value.
Neurofilament light chain in CSF is elevated in PSP, MSA and CBD, according to another study, with an area under the ROC curve of 0.93. This has been confirmed by others since. This is useful in distinguishing PSP from PD, but when your patient has a poor levodopa response and downgaze problems, PD isn’t really the issue; PSP, MSA and CBD are.
One study of neurofilament heavy chain found that it can differentiate PSP from CBD but not from MSA. That study was published in 2006 and we’re still awaiting confirmation.
You’d think that tau would be the object of intense scrutiny in the differential diagnosis of PSP by CSF, but there’s been relatively little on that. One good study found that the ratio of phospho-tau to total tau is lower in PSP and MSA than in PD. The other studies of phospho-tau in PSP have been negative.
So the winner so far for PSP, limping across the finish line, seems to be neurofilament light chain. It’s not available commercially as far as I can tell; nor should it be, without further study.
Adding to this discouraging picture is the fact that most or all of the studies of CSF markers in PSP have sampled patients in a stage of PSP that allowed clinical diagnosis. By that time, the CSF picture may be more diagnostic than in the earlier stages, when a state marker would be most useful. In other words, the studies were retrospective rather than prospective.
For now, I’m putting my money on imaging.